by Christina Katz
Don’t hold onto your teens too tightly, parents–the high school years are meant to be a time to prepare them for the world outside your home. Bear in mind that entire books have been written to help adults recover from the behavior of well-meaning parents who unconsciously clipped their wings because they couldn’t cope with the uncomfortable feelings that come with letting go. Your goal is to stay alert while preparing for a separation that is inevitable.
If you let your teen feel that you are being weepy and clingy about the physical distance that will arise between you as she begins her life as an independent adult, you will set her up for feelings of guilt and obligation that won’t serve her as she forges her own path in the world. Teens need incremental independence and appreciate your assistance getting used to the consequences of their choices. If you coddle your teen, do all her thinking for her, intercede in the face of every life challenge, swiftly grant every whim, and then abruptly withdraw your assistance after college, your child is bound to struggle.
Overcoming your natural tendency to want to shelter your child can be especially challenging if you have a well-behaved or reticent teen, skilled at avoiding parental upset and disappointment. A rebellious or strong-minded teen will be less concerned about hurting parents’ feelings and can make choices that please him more easily. But teens of any disposition need support and encouragement to make a smooth transition from the safe haven of home into self-reliance. Besides, there are ways to keep teens close to your heart while gently encouraging the independence that will help them grow the wings they will need to soar out into a world full of happy life choices.
ILLUMINATE PATHS TO EARNING INDEPENDENCE
Most teens like money. Money means, among other things, freedom to a teenager. Modern
money skills include exploring all the possible ways to earn money as well as savvy ways to save, spend, and invest. If you find you spend a lot of time discussing money management, maybe it’s time to educate yourself on current paths to earning. Try to keep any fearful assumptions about possible career paths in check. If your teen is an artist, explore the plethora of online earning opportunities that exist in creative work today. If your teen enjoys physical movement, research the jobs that allow her to be on her feet rather than sitting behind a desk. Try not to obsess about future job security. Get a career counselor involved to help your teen explore jobs that maximize her natural talents and interests.
CREATE A “SAY ANYTHING” SPACE
Don’t shy away from serious topics with your teen. Drugs, alcohol, date rape, sexual assault, gender identity, sexual preference, and birth control are just a few topics that need to be faced squarely and discussed openly with your teen before he leaves home. One way to broach these topics might be to watch and discuss topical films together that you wouldn’t necessarily share with younger children (see sidebar). The key here is to establish an open door communication policy in which no topics are off-limits. If this makes you squeamish, it may help to have a conversation with your spouse or another adult in the family first to get your concerns off your chest and help you share the responsibility of holding challenging discussions. Everyone in the family will likely become more accepting, mature, and open-minded thanks to your willingness to open up.
DISCUSS RELATIONSHIP WISDOM
Intimacy with another person requires a strong sense of individuality. Encourage your teen to see all relationships as learning opportunities. Use high school social situations as opportunities to discuss what she needs and wants in various types of relationships, to consider what attracts and repels her, and to explore which groups feel the most comfortable. Peer pressure is strong in high school, so if you don’t ask these questions, your teen may simply rely on the opinions of friends and peers rather than exploring her own opinions and desires. Conversations about the role of relationships encourage self-knowledge, which can lead to happier and healthier bonds in the long run. When it comes to creating lasting relationships with others, self-awareness is paramount. Don’t place too much emphasis on finding “the one” or being part of the popular crowd. Your acceptance of the needs and wants of your teen will go a long way towards her future happiness.
INTERRUPT ANXIETY WITH SPONTANEITY
Making the leap from home into the big wide world is a major life transition that can trigger many anxious thoughts. A helpful technique for any parent to learn to help break the cycle of negative thinking is anxiety interruption. When you notice a sign like tight shoulders or irritability, why not suggest a little walk or drive, or maybe even a spontaneous shopping trip. This may seem like a strange parenting habit, but by doing this, you are helping your teen learn to break the cycle of stress before it starts affecting his decision-making process. Focusing too much on the problems at hand blocks spontaneous solutions from bubbling up. So when your teen is struggling with what feels like a big decision, teach him how to move away from stress, let go of anxious thinking, and shift focus until clear thinking returns. Sometimes the easiest way to have a breakthrough is by getting into a calmer, more receptive state of mind.
THINK TWICE ABOUT ULTIMATUMS
Consider allowing your teen to decide where she stands on family traditions and rituals. “As long as you are living in this house, you will go to church every Sunday along with the entire family” is one possible approach. But another way is to establish a cut-off date for family obligations. Perhaps after the age of 16 your children can decide whether or not they will attend a family commitment like religious services or not. If your teen does not wish to join in, let her experience what it’s like to abstain. Then, if she decides to come back around, you will know it’s because she genuinely wants to rather than because she must. If she does not wish to participate right now, it may be valuable practice for you to allow her to make that decision for herself. Your teen will grow up and make her own choices in the future, no matter what you require her to do now. Allowing these small choices now may help both of you prepare to handle much bigger differences of opinion later on.
EMPHASIZE WAYS TO DECOMPRESS
The high school years are often short on alone time for both parents and children, especially during the emotionally intense graduation year. Nonetheless, you should strive to model and instill habits of self-reflection, self-care, and self-expression. Writing, drawing, biking, and knitting are all pleasurable solitary activities that help provide comfort and connection with oneself. As the departure date to leave home approaches, you may notice teens are more absorbed with friends and social activities than they are interested in spending time alone. However, moments of quality down time are when people connect with themselves and are crucial to leading a healthy, well-rounded life. Remember, if you want your teen to discover how to live a balanced life, you are going to have to set a good example. Restorative hobbies will come in handy as you both cope with the natural, bittersweet feelings that are sure to arise as you and your teen prepare to part on happy terms.
Author, journalist, and writing coach Christina Katz is readying herself for the inevitable day she has to say goodbye to her teen. But, like many parents, she can’t say she’s looking forward to it.